Why Chief Rabbi of the British Empire Sir Jonathan Sacks Chose the Wrong Metaphors to Describe the Siddur

The Chief Rabbi of the British Empire Sir Jonathan Sacks begins his introduction to the new Koren Siddur - Sacks edition, entitled, "Understanding Jewish Prayer," with this statement, "Prayer is the language of the soul in conversation with God. It is the most intimate gesture of the religious life, and the most transformative." The introduction goes on in lofty terms and continues for a page or two with additional poetic statements such as, "Language is the bridge joining us to Infinity."

When the rabbi turns to speak about the siddur itself, he says to start with, "The siddur is the choral symphony the covenantal people has sung to God across forty centuries from the days of the patriarchs until the present day." He calls it a "calibrated harmony."

Sure, this is the rabbi’s poetic introduction for the faithful. We don't want to parse its every lyrical phrase. Can one ever disagree with poetry? Yet, we must say something because the siddur is not a magnificent symphony festooned with harmonies. The rabbi is close to being accurate. He is on the right track but he stops at the wrong metaphor.

Not a “symphony” and not a “harmony” – the siddur prayer service that we know zigs when it should zag, It starts and stops and restarts. It changes the topic of conversation abruptly and frequently. It meanders and wanders. It contradicts and repeats in patterns that have no peers.

Sacks declares something about prayer and fractals later in his essay. There he edges towards a more compelling metaphoric portrayal of the landscape of the siddur, drawing from elements associated with chaos theory. But he retreats abruptly after a few short paragraphs without much explanation and leaves off from his tantalizing metaphoric suggestion. He draws back into his more comfortable position that we have before us in the Jewish prayer book a masterpiece of magnificence with a single rising crescendo of intensity and expression.

We struggle mightily with this portrayal. We want to afford the rabbi the respect that his office merits. But at last we have to say, step back, open the book and look at the words. You don't need to be a rocket scientist or a chief rabbi to see what lies before you. It’s not a single musical work. The metaphor that describes it must be a bit more complex. This collection is more than a raucous script. We use this composite book of texts called the siddur in an inharmonious set of performances.

Imagine you walked into a synagogue, unfamiliar with the rites and that you did not understand a word of Hebrew. In jarring sequences you would see Jews stand and sit; then stand again. You would see them fall on their faces, open doors and close doors, march around and touch objects, read from a scroll, kiss the fringes of their garments, cover their eyes, and above all chant, sing, be silent, chant again.

You would see them start to pray and then eighty eight pages later call out, "Bless," let us now start to pray! Those previous words, it turns out, were just preliminary. And during all of this recitation, those Jews would shake and shiver – rock and roll.

In respectful disagreement with the Chief Rabbi, we would rather characterize what goes on in the public Jewish prayer services as follows. Come to the synagogue for a rock concert with six bands performing. Each has its own sound and lyrics and style. By now you are surely aware that in the siddur and the synagogue we see a book and its performances that make up a complex set of multiple voices. Sometimes the personalities behind those voices speak to one another, oftentimes they sing past one another. The services that we know are like a Woodstock of Jews at prayer. Not a symphony and not a cacophony – it is a concert. Looked at as a whole we may see a synagogue performance full of dissonance and disharmony. Yet to be sure each of its parts has its own musical coherence and synchronization.

Sacks by design got his metaphors wrong. He is not alone to be faulted. All said and done, he is the chief of the promoters of the good aspects of the Jewish faith. Many others with the same intent have tried to describe the services of the siddur as a symphony, to impose upon them a synchronicity that is not there. We do understand. They’d like the performances of the synagogue to be magnificent and aesthetically nonpareil. Okay. But perhaps the Chief Rabbi never went to an inspired rock concert with multiple bands in company. The tunes the groups in turn play at such a venue absolutely do not mesh like a symphony. The artists in the respective groups positively do not fit together. But the impact of the performances of such an event independently and as a unit often can pack quite a wallop. And for the attendee-participant it can be both stunning and inspirational.

In a composite rock or pop or jazz concert it does not detract that the vehicles themselves speak in many voices and sing in dozens of dissonant keys. In our synagogue services too, the whirling activity of reading and singing and humming and silence, we can find and mine a trove of truly complex and fascinating contents of words, ideas, themes, tropes and compositions.

Like a great impresario’s rock concert, the great Jewish get-together called the siddur has performances in the synagogue that convey a multiplicity of ideas and precepts and of personalities, as we intend to show in our new book.

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